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contamination

I just received this: Apparently the left wing party in Saarland, Germany, wants to know whether fewer girls are being born around nuclear power plants. Scientifically, there seems to be some evidence that the X-Chromosome gets destroyed quite easily even at already low levels of radiation. The politician who demands this is called Ensch-Engel, and he basically said that (liberally translated): „Because of the closeness to the nuclear power plant Cattenom, it is possible that the gender distribution in Saarland may be subject to alarming changes.“

I live in Luxembourg, which is as close to Cattenom as the German region Saarland, and oddly more girls have been born in my group of friends than boys. Clearly, this is unlikely to be a representative sample, but a quick analysis of the children below one year living in the German regions around Cattenom is enlightening. I find it surprising that a politician cannot do this himself, it took me like 10 minutes. In any case, here are the results.

Basically, in the whole of Germany, 51.27% of children below one year are boys. In Saarland, respectively Merzig-Wadern or Saarlouis, the German regions closest to Cattenom, this number is 51.82, 51.57 and 52.08. Now, I would not call these numbers alarming, but they are marginally higher. If we take a 99% confidence interval of all regions in Germany, then this amounts from 51.05 to 51.5. Each of the regions with close proximity to Cattenom is above this confidence interval, which basically means that, statistically speaking, it is likely that fewer girls are born close to Cattenom.

As a disclaimer, this number is very small. In addition, it could still be due to other statistical irregularities or effects.

Still, a quick check with google shows that this is apparently not only the case around Cattenom, but also across many different regions that are close to nuclear power plants in various countries, see e.g. HERE.  While I would really advice noone to call this difference alarming in any sense, the worrying question is still: Assume radiation reduces the number of girls being born. Then this means that the radiation, despite it being more than 50km away from nuclear plants and being thus really minuscule, still has an impact on our DNA. I would call this the worrying issue! Who knows what else it then may impact…

Persons below 1 year (source: Regionalstatistik Germany)
Total Percent
Total boys girls boys girls
Germany 663026 339973 323053 51.2760 48.7240
Saarland 7062 3660 3402 51.8267 48.1733
Merzig-Wadern, Landkreis 795 410 385 51.5723 48.4277
Saarlouis, Landkreis 1390 724 666 52.0863 47.9137
boys girls
99% Confidence upper 51.5048 48.9528
Interval lower 51.0472 48.4952

exxon-valdez-540x304On this day, 25 years ago, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef and 40.000 tons of crude oil (or 0.3% of today’s world daily production) spilled into the ocean, leading to one of the largest human-caused environmental disasters. After only one week, 90 miles of coast were affected, and after two months roughly 400 miles.

2008912055In the aftermath of this event, several environmental laws were passed, like the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. But the main question at that time was about Contingent Valuation (CV). CV tries to estimate the non-market value of goods. Obviously, since the beaches and the ocean do not have a price attached to them per se, it was important to quantify the costs of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on these natural resources.

A regulation that had just passed a couple of years before that, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, gave the US government the right to sue for non-market values. But what really is the non-market value of “100,000 to as many as 250,000 seabirds, at least 2,800 sea otters, approximately 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 Bald Eagles, and 22 orcas, and an unknown number of salmon and herring,” as well as an oil spill that “covered 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline,and 11,000 square miles (28,000 km2) of ocean” with significant amounts of oil still being found as of today?

After several court rules, appeals, re-appeals, judgements, re-judgements, as of Dec 2009, Exxon “paid all owed $507.5 million punitive damages, including lawsuit costs, plus interest,” and had spent “an estimated $2 billion cleaning up the spill and a further $1 billion to settle related civil and criminal charges.” I could not find information on the non-market value that the CV had estimated, but it would certainly be interesting to know what number the US government came up with.

In any case, after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Department of Commerce organized a panel discussion to address the following question: Can CV give reliable estimates of non-market values?

And if you really want to know how the CV methodology is holding up these days, you should go over to our cromulent 🙂 defenders and main contributers to the CV method in environmental economics at http://bit.ly/1afYAGY. What is clear is that, after now 25 years of substantial efforts, CV has become a tool of even mainstream economists and is THE tool to quantify non-market values.

Nevertheless, a lesson to take away is:
Only through a disaster do we tend to become aware of the value of what we have affected or lost. We then try to place a price on it and hope that it corresponds to this value. But the point is that through the disaster we have already lost what we have just valued. It might thus be reasonable to invoke the precautionary principle for any technology that potentially leads to extreme consequences until a thorough Cost-Benefit Analysis has been undertaken.

Trivia:
The Exxon Valdez is the base of the Smokers in Waterworld.

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